Conversations in the cabin

There’s always been something special about conversations in the cabin. Maybe it’s the feeling of having “made harbor,” perhaps after a long day at sea, the anchor dug in nicely, the stinging spray and wind now gone from our faces. Somehow, fears and trepidations get extinguished in the calm of the womb-like den, as we’re now removed, sequestered from the outside world. Somehow, the utter privacy of the cabin, the sense that we’re anchored out, not tethered to anyone or anything, grants us permission to really talk, perhaps even let down our guard, free up a few secrets, or finally have the time just to tell some stories to a captive audience.

As a communications officer aboard a WWII ship, Dave’s dad received this message. It’s one of two he’ll never forget. Photo courtesy David Roper

I’ve been fortunate to have had many times like this with many lovely people over 50-plus years of cruising – stories from girlfriends, wives, son, daughter, father, brothers, and close friends. It’s uncanny, but not one ever seemed to hold back in the cabin. It’s as if it were a sanctuary.

One night was extra special. I was about 50, my dad about 85, and we were aboard Elsa, my 40-year old sloop, anchored off one of those alluring wooded islands of Merchant Row in Maine’s Penobscot Bay. After a long day’s sail and having finished some just-right steak tips from the stern grill, my Dad and I had retired to Elsa’s cozy cabin. I lit the lamp, poured a couple more glasses of wine, and we settled in.

“Pop, tell me about the Navy and World War II,” I asked, knowing I was asking him to reach back over 50 years.

“Ah, my naval career. Well, first of all, I was no war hero. You need to know that. It all began on an old four-stack destroyer built in the ’20s; most of these ships had already been mothballed, but a few were used for Naval Reserve Officers Training Corps [NROTC] training, and that’s why I was on board, a young officer fresh out of Yale. A real greenhorn.”

Dad looked amused, then looked down, lost in a memory; I could tell it was a good one.

“I remember the ‘head’ on board ship, a room on deck aft, about 15 feet long. A trough for sanitary use ran the length and a steady stream of sea water came in at the forward end, passed under one, two, three, four or five squatting rear ends and exited (with its loads) at the after end and overboard. Well, the regular sailors had fun with us NROTC boys. A wise guy at the forward end would light some bunched-up toilet paper and let the stream carry it down under the several innocent bottoms sitting downstream. But this trick could only be done once every NROTC voyage, as word spread very quickly.”

“Let’s flip to the action, Pop. You must have seen some action when the war started? You were in the Pacific, right? Unless maybe you don’t want to talk about that.”

He smiled. “I was lucky. The closest I got to being on the direct receiving end of the hell of war was an urgent dispatch. You see, my longest duty was in the Pacific, on the USS Nitro, an ammunition ship – why the name was plastered on her bow in huge letters I never understood! Kind of like pasting a target to your back. Anyway, I was a young officer and oversaw a deck of sailors including a crew handling the after 3” AA gun. Then I advanced to communications officer, keeping code books, coding machines, and seeing to the message distribution in the ship and to the Navy outside.”

“Must have been some interesting things you were privy to,” I said.

“Well, two come to mind. I’ll never forget either one. As we were headed into the Panama Canal on Dec. 7, 1941 I received, not coded, in plain English this message:

URGENT DISPATCH X AIR-RAID ON PEARL HARBOR X THIS IS NOT DRILL.

Seems the Navy didn’t want an ammunition ship in the Panama Canal in case the Japanese hit that next.”

Dad took a sip of his wine, turned and looked aft at the dwindling light in Elsa’s companionway, then looked back at me. “And there was a special coded message that was about your oldest brother.”

“Really?”

“You see, official messages couldn’t be personal in nature, so my friend Curtis, back home, who was also a Lieutenant, informed me of something real important with this message:

MSG FOR LIEUTENANT ROPER X SHIPMENT MERCHANDISE ARRIVED X EXCELLENT CONDITION OUTSIDE THREADS X NET WEIGHT SEVEN AND ONE HALF POUNDS

“Code for a baby boy!”

“Right you are!”

I could see Dad was getting tired. “Okay, just one more question. What about your captains? You must have had some interesting captains.”

“Many. One captain during my long tour on the Nitro was Captain Clifford Richardson, a portly man with the hobby of model making, which he did aboard ship. Now, in the hot Pacific we were accustomed to wearing any sort of uniform at sea, one being white trousers and an undershirt – even some of the chiefs dressed that way; sometimes even the captain! One hot day Capt. Richardson had taken his model down to the crowded carpenter shop, and began using the band saw. One of the chiefs was repairing an item of the ship’s gear and needed the same saw. Coming up from behind and being improperly held up by what appeared to be another seaman, he said, ‘Shove over, Fatty, some of us have real work to do.’ Well, that incident was all over the ship in 10 minutes. Not sure what ever happened to that chief.”

Dad gave a big yawn and smiled. “Anyway, thanks for taking the old man cruising. There’s just nothing like it.” He stretched out on his bunk, fluffed his pillow, and pulled the blanket up around him. I reached up to turn down the cabin lamp. “Anyway, your old man was no war hero.”

I looked over at him and smiled.

“I wouldn’t want it any other way,” I said.

Dave Roper’s novel, “Rounding the Bend: The Life and Times of Big Red,” was released last June and is available from Amazon.com and Barnes and Noble.

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